Adelaide Film Festival 2017 Week 1 Report
Alex Lines reports from Adelaide Film Festival, and reviews Aussie films Guilty, Sweet Country Cargo and more!
After attending both MIFF and Cinefest OZ this year, I’ve officially caught the film festival bug. Having never been to Adelaide before mixed in with the Adelaide Film Festival’s great range of great Australian and Foreign films, attending the festival this year seemed like a no-brainer. The 2017 theme is “Viva Le Punk”, showcasing a variety of rebellious films – metaphorically and literally. After a VR themed opening night (an event that Luke Buckmaster covered pretty well here), my film-watching experience kicked off with the Russian drama Arrhythmia.
Arrhythmia (Boris Khlebnikov)
Thanks to conveniences of modern technology and a generational shift towards a dependence on indirect communication, significant conversations can be merely exchanged through the unemotional instrument of text messages. What would you think if you heard that someone you knew, proposed a divorce with their significant other over a text message? This is the plot setup for Boris Khlebnikov’s effective romantic drama Arrhythmia (which is a medical term for an irregular heartbeat).
The film’s pair of opening scenes does an efficient job in setting up its central dynamic – Oleg (Aleksandr Yatsenko) is a talented but reckless paramedic, foregoing the ambulance crew’s strict set of rules in order to save each of his patient’s lives. After this we see the tortuous outcome of this lifestyle, an unstable combination of drinking, reckless partying and being generally disconnected with his nurse wife Katya (Irina Gorbacheva). During an annual visit to Katya’s father’s home for his birthday, Oleg’s love for alcohol arises one too many times, causing Katya to make a hasty decision of divorcing her troubled husband through a text message.
Whilst Katya’s perspective is generally ignored for large periods of time (one of the film’s flaws is the imbalance between the two dissenting views), most of the narrative is spent on experiencing Oleg’s daily life, and how he chooses to deal with having his long-term wife wanting a divorce. He must also deal with a new boss at work, an impersonal weasel who places financial budgets above the lives of patients.
The scenes showcasing Oleg’s paramedic care, which range from heart attacks to a graphic knife stab situation, are constructed incredibly well, allowing the cinema verité cinematography to really transport the audience alongside these distressing episodes. Not only do these parts help illustrate Oleg as a complex character, but they cleverly reflect each stage of Oleg and Katya’s relationship. This intelligent metaphorical infusion clicked for me during the film’s most traumatic scene, a brutal emergency call where Oleg must save the life of a young girl who has been electrified via a fallen electrical pole.
These scenes by themselves could’ve just been their own film, a more realistic and compelling look at the everyday life of paramedics than was offered by Martin Scorsese‘s Bringing Out the Dead. Even with the understanding that this is quite the slow-burn drama, the plot barely progresses throughout its 2 hour runtime, despite its quick and efficient setup. Fortunately the film never resorts to cheap melodrama or typical dramatic tropes in order to help keep going, even when the second half gets quite repetitive, often falling back onto the paramedic vignettes when you’re honestly yearning to see any development on the couple’s complex connection.
Nonetheless, Arrthymia is a well-crafted drama that, despite its modern day Russian setting, looks at some universal problems about relationships and what ties people together.
Cargo (Yolanda Ramke & Ben Howling)
Nowadays it seems impossible to try and make an original film about zombies. The late 2000’s revival of the always prevailing horror subgenre occurred thanks to the success of Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake and the instant popularity for the Walking Dead TV series (and the graphic novel it’s based upon). The usual formula seems to be: zombies + location. Boats, shopping malls, banks, even most recently in a single lift, the need to constantly subvert and be creatively different from the hundreds of other derivative zombie titles that are released every year has resulted in mixed results. For every great original film like Jeremy Gardner’s The Battery, we get World War Z, a big budget festival that crams so many CGI creatures that all sense of realism or sentiment is lost.
Cargo, the debut feature from Yolanda Ramke and Ben Howling, could’ve been easily boiled down to “Zombies in the Outback”. Based upon the duo’s Tropfest finalist film of the same name, Cargo aspires to be much more than the generic “undead in the outback” movie that people might assume it to be. Those going in expecting a traditional array of gory kills and dismembered limbs will walk away disappointed (those fans should seek out Wyrmwood instead), this is a survival drama that happens to have zombie roaming about. The best way to describe it would be These Final Hours meets 28 Days Later. Cargo asks the poignant question of what does it mean to live when everything around you dead, dying or dying to kill you?
Set in the Australian outback after an ambiguous virus/zombie outbreak has broken out, dedicated family man Andy (a well cast Martin Freeman) has kept his family safe by cruising on a houseboat, looking for any signs of safety and hospitality. Despite his wife Kay’s (Susie Porter) pleas to abandon the boat and search on land, Andy doesn’t want to risk the life of their infant daughter Rosie, oblivious to the ruined world she’s been born into. After a series of nasty accidents leave Andy stuck with Rosie on-land, he has the horrifying discovery that he has been bitten, leaving him with only 48 hours to find a safe place for Rosie before he is transformed into the undead himself.
Andy’s journey sees him meeting some of society’s remnant survivors, which includes a sympathetic school teacher, an opportunistic hunter who lives with his kidnapped bride and Thoomi, an Indigenous child who’s desperately trying to revive her undead father. Believing that her spiritual leader Cleverman (Australian screen legend David Gulpilil) can save her father, the pair (with Rosie in tow) team up in hopes of making sure their loved ones get a chance at a second (and more hopeful) life. The interactions along the way give the narrative an episodic feeling, with each sequence feeling disconnected from the next.
You could write a giant list of all the typical zombie cliches that this film actively avoids (I’m so glad there wasn’t a montage of news reports and riot footage at the beginning), but in doing so, it ends up plunging into an abundance of post-apocalyptic tropes. The aesthetic of the grizzled older man who must defend a young woman has become incredibly overplayed by this point (Logan, The Last of Us, These Final Hours, Children of Men, War for the Planet of the Apes just to name a few), although it does help that Andy is actually the father of the child, rather than an imposed father figure who is forced into assistance.
Ramke’s screenplay subtly introduces us to a very realistic take on an Australian outback populated by the undead, employing the grand cinematic rule of showing, not telling. The term “zombie” is never uttered, and the only sense of the inception of the disaster is witnessed through some government issued flashcards and emergency kits. The result of this minimalistic approach to the story-telling is that Andy lacks any form of character or distinctive features. We never learn of who Andy is, and his only goal in the film is to save his daughter, one which exists right from the beginning. Whilst we naturally want to see him save his daughter, nothing in the screenplay actually gives him any personality or outstanding qualities, he merely exists as a vehicle to keep the narrative going.
I’m quite intrigued by the existence of Cargo, as Australia simply doesn’t put enough faith in genre material these days, but Cargo’s avoidance to become another zombie film pushes it towards very typical Australian dramatic territory. The dependence on Australian iconography and simplistic storytelling has been done countless times before, sharing a feeling that it is somewhat embarrassed of being labelled a genre film due to the negative perception of the idea. The golden era of Ozploitation cinema during the 1970’s-80’s, when the Australian film industry was revived due to a series of successful exploitation pictures, was both a blessing and an affliction for genre cinema in Australia.
Whilst it does remain an incredibly important part of our cinematic history, the (usually) trashy quality and offensively controversial elements of those movies meant that the common perception of them was that they were worthless and obstructively influential. Due to this, it seems that Australian filmmakers are still afraid to make a pure genre film on a large canvas, instead it’s always predicated with a type of formal political message or being introduced as an “elevated genre” movie, one which merely borrows elements from the horror, action or sci-fi genres in order to tell a more dramatic story, disguising its origins in favour for pleasing a more distinguished type of audience. Cargo is a dramatic horror picture for people who don’t like horror movies, so for the younger audiences expecting a jump scare marathon lubricated by a heavy dosage of gore may have to seek out other fare.
Goodbye Christopher Robin (Simon Curtis)
Describing a film as “Your Typical Biopic” can immediately tell you everything you need to know about the quality of the movie in question. The Biopic, aka Biographical Picture, is usually a favourite genre come awards season, turning the camera towards some of the most celebrated or unknown personalities that have helped shape society as we know. The mechanics of the “Typical Biopic” usually entail truncated timelines of the featured person, heavily sanitising or overly dramatising tragic/miserable events, condensing or inventing new characters for narrative convenience and a lenience on historical hindsight. Goodbye Christopher Robin, a heavily fictionalised account on A.A. Milne’s creation of the Winnie The Pooh story and the effects that its success had on his family’s lives, unfortunately fits this template to a capital T.
After a hopeful beginning that promises to subvert these tropes, the sense of narrative familiarity slowly seeps in. Despite implementing a couple of genuinely creative beats in its first act, once the story turns towards the inception of the Pooh legacy, things start to get cliched as hell. To boil down how this movie translates the origins of the beloved children’s character, celebrated author and playwright A.A. Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) has just returned from World War I with a severe case of PTSD (or as known in those days as being “shellshocked”). Wanting to write an anti-war tome in an attempt to prevent any more future conflict, Milne transports his family to the countryside, away from the hectic lifestyle that frequently triggers his new condition.
Frustrated by his declining work ethic, Milne’s superficial bourgeois wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) moves back into the city, leaving Milne to care for their only child, Christopher Robin, all by himself. After a childhood of being raised solely by his loving babysitter Olive (Kelly MacDonald), Milne and his son share a distant relationship, compounded by his increasingly debilitating mental difficulties. When Christopher introduces his troubled father to his imaginary world, one populated by an array of stuffed animals who live within the “Hundred Acre Woods”, Milne decides to turn his son’s creative tales into a collection of short stories. When the books become ridiculously successful worldwide, Christopher is forced into the spotlight, an unwanted adjustment that slowly ruins his life, a decay that eventually crumbles the entire Milne family.
Despite this dark turn of events (a son growing to hate his father is some pretty heavy stuff), the big problem comes director Simon Curtis trying to twist this downfall into something that’s audience friendly and ultimately sympathetic, which cheapens the drama and makes everything feel false. The attachment to the Winnie the Pooh franchise holds back this film’s potential, as the true story that this movie extrapolates upon is way darker and far more fascinating. Whilst films don’t need to be literal educational recreations of real life events, turning this uniquely ironic tale (worldwide fame for the cost of your son’s livelihood shares a Shakespearean tinge) into such charmless, trite material is unfortunate.
How To Talk to Girls At Parties (John Cameron Mitchell)
With the recent passing of Harry Dean Stanton, many reflected back on Stanton’s best known role as Bud in Alex Cox’s classic Repo Man. Repo Man has remained such a unique masterpiece due to being a strange combination of so many 80’s genres and subcultures, most prominently mixing the counter-culture punk culture (which was relevant at the time) with the aesthetics of 50’s retro cinema. Combining these two extremes like this can be difficult, and as Alex Cox’s later films have shown us, getting it wrong can be an incredible disaster.
How To Talk to Girls At Parties, an adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s 18 page short story, attempts to craft a successful marriage between these adverse cultural subgroups: The 1970’s British punk wave and the quirky, drug fuelled sci-fi conceptions of the 1980’s. Unfortunately, instead of being a collusion of satisfactory entertainment, the end result is that of a car crash, a total mess that completely mishandles both of the film’s offbeat components.
After a horrible opening animated sequence that genuinely felt like an extended title card for one of the film’s production companies, we are introduced to Enn (Alex Sharp), an aspiring graphic designer and die hard punk fanatic during the tumultuous times of 1970’s London. Much like many young adult comedies of the past, Enn and his pair of goofy punk-loving friends are young, naive and horny. This pursuit for sexual validation leads the three men lost on the way to an afterparty, where they come across a bizarre complex blasting some unique European dance music.
Inside the house they discover a diverse assortment of leather-clad beings, a strange group of disguised aliens who are in the process of evolving their different races. When Enn comes across Zan (Elle Fanning), an alien who is about to complete her full life cycle, she is immediately intrigued by Enn’s rebel lifestyle and lack of social conformity, a trait that she desires within her strict, eccentrically ghastly way of living. Under the impression that Zan is under the control of an American cult (oblivious to the group’s obvious extra-terrestrial mannerisms), they decide to invoke the help of Queen Boadicea (Nicole Kidman), an aged punk-rock costumer designer, to help lead a rebellion against the strange alien gang and hopefully save Zan’s future.
What follows is some traditional fish out of water antics, the ‘quirky outsider’ who observes general human behaviour for a continued sense of character building and comic relief, seen earlier this year in Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman. The script isn’t terrible, but the need to build its sci-fi world and the operations of the humanistic aliens overly complicates the narrative, especially when none of it feels necessary to the central story. What should be a delightful and unconventional young adult romance within a sci-fi frame, gradually transforms into an indecipherable mess of universal politics, gang wars and a horrible Windows Movie Maker level music video, one that seem so garishly ugly that you almost think Tim and Eric guest directed the scene.
Not only is the narrative exceedingly cluttered, but on a visual level, the film is incredibly ugly to look at. Ignoring the basic animation effects that pop up periodically, the cinematography looks shoddy and the grain added to replicate the 1970’s setting doesn’t work because the lighting and colour grade don’t match the aged aesthetics that is being attempted. This isn’t helped by the costume design, with the alien costumes genuinely feeling like a school production. Instead of looking like a charming old Douglas Adams adaptation, instead comes across like a cheap made for video porno from the late 80’s. Ironically enough, this punk rock picture could’ve actually used some traditional configuration, both thematically and in design.
Sweet Country (Warwick Thornton)
I’ll start this review with a bold statement: Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country is the best looking Australian film in years. One of the benefits of shooting in Australia is the access the huge amounts of vast Australian outback, uniquely desolate landscapes that can only be found here. Like with any technical aspect of filmmaking, anyone can shoot in the outback, but it takes a special eye and skill to get the best out of it, and maximise its potential for being a terrific canvas to paint a film upon.
The other Australian film I saw earlier, Cargo, took this approach, but mostly stuck to drone shots and capturing the general wilderness, imagery that we’ve all seen countless times before. Thornton, who not only directed the movie but shot it alongside Dylan River, have given us one of the first Australian films in a while that demands you see it in a cinema. The landscape shots, the way the camera moves with motivation depending on what’s happening with the characters, is quite a refreshing change from the general TV-level cinematography that we’re frequently offered.
Coming off its dual wins at Toronto and Venice Film Festival (which places it in prime Oscar potential), Sweet Country is a passionate look at Australia’s violent history, the hardships that Indigenous Australians had to endure, the gradual erasure of culture and much more, a complicated mixture of themes that never feels contrived or unnatural to the central narrative, each subject feels organically weaved into the various arcs of the film’s stacked cast. Thornton never cheapens his themes to a simple black or white style of morality, the film merely asks the questions that the audience themselves should be left answering, no answer is correct, but by merely having people have the conversation about these issues, the film rightfully does its job well.
Inspired by a true story, Sweet Country transports us back to 1929 in a small rural town in the Northern Territory. From his first interaction with peaceful preacher Fred Smith (the always dependable Sam Neill), it’s apparent that alcoholic war veteran Harry March (Ewen Leslie) is bound to cause trouble. March immediately takes advantage of Smith’s good nature, borrowing Smith’s indigenous farm hand Sam Kelly (played by newcomer Hamilton Morris, who does a damn good job), a favour that receives zero reciprocation. Meanwhile, abused farmhand Philomac (played by twins Tremayne and Trevon Doolan), who has the tendency of stealing, is also borrowed by March, but when Philomac escapes from March’s violent clutches, March goes on a drunken rampage looking for the boy.
His misguided venture leads him to drunkenly confront Kelly (under the impression that he’s sheltering the kid), which leads to Kelly shooting March dead in a swift act of self-defence. Knowing that being an Indigenous man who has killed a white man will receive zero sympathy and immediate death, Kelly and his wife Lizzie (another first-timer Natassia Gorey-Furber) go on the run. Demanding justice for the murder, Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) assembles a group of men to hunt down and arrest Kelly, who constantly has the upper hand against his potential captors.
One of the major stigmas of modern Australian cinema, especially in the drama genre, is that they’re always delivered in a mannered, slow-burn nature. It’s actually quite rare to see an Australian film that doesn’t span over two hours. Sweet Country does take its time, especially during the first half as each member of the heavy cast is set-up. Fortunately, the script allows for each of the varied cast members to receive enough justifiable screentime, so that no character or situation feels wasted, but the measured pace may be too slow for some. Visually arresting, well-acted and carried by a layered story with cataclysmic consequences, Sweet Country is great example of what Australian cinema has to offer.
Guilty (Matthew Sleeth)
Back in 2005, you couldn’t turn on any Australian TV without hearing about the “Bali 9”, a group of nine Australians who were caught trying to smuggle 8 kilograms of heroin out of Bali. Coming off the tail-end of the Schapelle Corby scandal, another Australian arrested trying to deal with drugs in Bali, the Australian media were obsessed with covering every minute detail about the nine arrested men, with two of them being dubbed the ringleaders of the operation: Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran.
Due to being revealed as the masterminds behind the failed drug run, Chan and Sukumaran were both sentenced to death, due to Indonesia’s extremely strict policy against drug trafficking, with the remaining seven members given life sentences (that are still being served to this day). The harsh punishment opened up the larger debate about the death penalty within Australia, an argument that primarily drives Matthew Sleeth’s documentary Guilty, an intense look at the final 72 hours of Myuran Sukumaran’s life before he was executed in 2015.
Sleeth makes the smart decision in deciding to summarize the case during a quick opening sequence, as most Australians already know the case pretty well due to its fierce media coverage, and those who don’t, are given enough material to understand what’s going on. Without the clutter of simply reiterating this information, Sleeth focuses his attention on Sukumaran’s life, illuminating his humanity and passion for painting, a sympathetic decision that slowly discards the general perception of him just being another unlikeable drug smuggler. Pieced from phone conversations, character witnesses, news stories and letters written, Sleeth paints the final moments of Sukumaran’s life with clear image of dignity. By highlighting how unwarranted his death was, he creates a damning but empathetic case against the death penalty.
The bulk of the film is delivered by dramatic re-enactments, with Sukumaran being played by Adam McConvell, who does a great job with a difficult role. Coming from a background of photography and art, Matthew Sleeth and cinematographer Katie Milwright give the recreations a real cinematic flair, elevating it above the standard made for TV material that this film could’ve been. The clinical nature of the eventual execution is bound to leave anybody feeling cold, forcing the audience to witness the methodical nature of the distressing affair, especially with the understanding that this actually happened only two years ago. Analytical but sympathetic, Guilty is a cinematic gut punch, a detailed profile of a man that too many have swiftly dismissed.
Jill Bilcock: Dancing the Invisible (Axel Grigor)
As mentioned in my interview with the director/editor Axel Grigor, the role of the film editor is too often overlooked. Grigor pointed out that general audiences still don’t have a basic understanding of film editing and just how hard it is, with the best type of editing being unnoticeable. Even when it’s done unconventionally or instantly noticeable to an audience, it’s usually credited to the director, as opposed to the actual editor. People will frequently reference that a film was cut like a Tarantino movie, but usually forgetting that it was Sally Menke who cut those iconic sequences. Due to this, there is virtually no real documentaries or films about film editors (Albert Brooks’ Modern Romance always comes to mind), so seeing Grigor’s profile on one of Australia’s most influential and prolific film editors, Jill Bilcock, was a refreshing sight to see.
Much like the documentary detailing movie critic David Stratton’s life earlier this year, Dancing the Invisible offers a wealth of information on two subjects: detailing the life and importance of Jill Bilcock’s work, as well as using the projects she’s worked on as a pathway into exploring the evolving nature of the Australian film history. Whilst Stratton’s documentary covered all of the Australian films that inspired his love for cinema, this film touches on all of the major films that Bilcock worked on, highlighting what she brought to them with her editing skills and what inspired her distinctive choices. Her incredibly impressive filmography includes Baz Luhrmann’s Red Carpet Trilogy (Romeo + Juliet, Strictly Ballroom and Moulin Rouge), Muriel’s Wedding, Head On, Red Dog and Road to Perdition, an awe-inspiring line-up that has made her beloved by the industry and her collaborators.
The amount of archival footage and clips from her extensive work history really help paint a passionate portrait of one of Australia’s major cinematic talents, with even Bilcock herself remarking in my post-screening’s Q&A that the documentary featured photos and videos that she never knew existed. Clips including her brief history as an actress in Bollywood films in the 70’s, news report footage of her early days at Fred Schepisi’s Film House make for some real intriguing entertainment, alongside the extremely stacked selection of talking heads who talk about Jill’s work.
Major Australian stars such as Cate Blanchett, Baz Luhrmann, Rachel Griffiths, Shekhar Kapur and more help punctuate the array of footage on display, injecting some personal insights and compliments that really solidify Bilcock’s beloved position within the industry. Hopefully the film becomes a go-to tool for beginners to understand the art of film editing, Jill Bilcock: Dancing the Invisible is an affectionate tribute to one of the masters of an often overlooked aspect of filmmaking.
Are you looking forward to any of these films mentioned?
Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.